FRANKFORT, Ky. — A Kentucky Senate committee advanced a bill Wednesday to make changes to the state's struggling juvenile justice system, backed by additional funding meant to overcome staffing shortages and ensure youths receive mental health treatment.
The issue has been at the forefront of this year's legislative session, following a string of assaults, riots and escapes as the state-run juvenile justice system has struggled to house increasing numbers of youths accused of violent offenses.
The sweeping bill approved by the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee would make organizational changes in the Department of Juvenile Justice. It directs millions in additional funding to hire more staff and sustain pay raises awarded by Gov. Andy Beshear.
“The piece of legislation will not solve the issues within DJJ, but it will address some of the most pressing issues facing the department," said Republican Sen. Danny Carroll. "And it will lay a foundation for additional changes to occur in the near future.”
Senate Bill 162 would require that juvenile detention centers statewide be placed under the supervision of one supervisor who would report to the agency’s commissioner, said Carroll, the bill's lead sponsor.
The measure would direct the department to enter into contracts ensuring access to mental health treatment. It would require that youths placed in detention facilities have access to a mental health professional, Carroll said.
It would require the state to transition back to a regional model for juvenile detention centers — keeping youths closer to their homes — while separating males and females as well as violent from nonviolent offenders, he said. And it calls for management training for anyone in leadership positions at DJJ, including the commissioner.
The measure reflects many of the funding requests from Beshear's administration to shore up staffing and security in the troubled juvenile detention system.
There's an infusion of extra state funding to deal with chronic understaffing in DJJ facilities. It provides money to maintain the pay raises that the governor ordered recently for detention center staff and would allow those increases to apply to more DJJ staff, Carroll said. It also includes funding to hire more youth workers in juvenile detention centers, he said.
More funding would go for security upgrades at the detention centers as well.
The money would be allocated to deal with “something that’s broken that’s got to be fixed. It’s a shame that we’ve gotten to this place,” said Republican Senate President Pro Tem David Givens.
“This is our response to a crisis in leadership,” Givens said during the committee hearing.
The governor has resisted calls from some lawmakers for changes at the top of DJJ. Beshear, a Democrat, hired current DJJ commissioner Vicki Reed in 2021 after firing her predecessor. The governor has expressed confidence in her commitment to “getting it fixed.”
The legislative action comes as the juvenile justice system tries to overcome outbreaks of violence. A riot broke out last year at a detention center, leaving several young people and staff wounded. Order was restored after state police and other law enforcement officers entered the facility. More recently, three juveniles kicked and punched staff during an attack at another center.
Beshear previously responded to the unrest by making a series of policy changes.
He announced that male juveniles would be assigned to facilities based on the severity of their offenses. Three high-security juvenile detention centers were designated to house teenage male offenders charged with serious crimes. The governor ordered the opening of the state’s first female-only juvenile detention center. And he said “defensive equipment” — pepper spray and Tasers — will be provided for the first time so detention center workers can defend themselves and others if attacked.